Art for God's sake

For local artist James Michael Starr, God is in the details

Assemblage, the type of refined, subtle art pioneered by Joseph Cornell, turns out to be the perfect vehicle for Starr's lush messages. That Starr adds so much text to his pieces is both surprising and successful. He turns out passages as gracefully as he turns out sculpture, so that it never seems shrill or preachy. "He did not know how to be delicate and often did not want to be," he scrawls alongside a sepia-toned photograph of a father figure.

Many of the traditional elements of assemblage are found here: doll parts; old picture frames holding various aged photos and trinkets; leafy, twiggy things sticking out; tiny found objects that glint with metallic sheen. But there's nothing chaotic or sloppy about any of it (a common problem with amateur assemblage that leaves any viewer cold). Starr's sense of balance -- both aesthetic and thematic -- conquers the potential junkiness of artwork made with things he picks off his lawn and coffee table and out of his pockets. He's got a clear line of vision for each piece, whether speculating on man's need for flight (his series of nude-study photos doctored with real insect wings and myth-gleaned text) or reconstructing a crucifix using muscular Leonardo figures and bona fide lightning rods. His God is in the details. Nails spiral into a halo above a striated medical-drawing face; dried branches become the roots beneath a photo of a growing boy's feet. The artist has written, "I have been told that the roots of the tree extend below the surface as a mirror image of its branches reaching up and out..." Tiny starfish skeletons mingle with photos of Starr's ancestors like ephemeral punctuation marks: Yes, things on this earth can be beautiful, and all things pass away, leaving only the shell of their physical lives.

The common New York subway token hidden behind one cross speaks volumes if you just listen: perhaps Starr's lineage traced from the northeast, the transit between this world and the spiritual one, Jesus' journey from flesh to savior.

"The Conversion of St. Paul," as told by Starr
"The Conversion of St. Paul," as told by Starr
Starr uses the "c" word: "Christ Drawing All Men to Himself"
Starr uses the "c" word: "Christ Drawing All Men to Himself"

Details

Through July 17
Stone By Stone Gallery,
3023 Routh St.

When Starr spins off into the secular, it can be as funny as it is noble; the thoughtfulness of his written observations never undermines his more religious leanings. In a series of insect portraits made from old encyclopedia pages, he writes messages of droll caution regarding the man's fickleness. For "The Dragonfly": "He dreams of hovering close by, feigning intimacy, then quickly darting out of reach, sometimes disappearing like vapor." As opposed to beetle-like "Insect," who "...dreams that he will swoop in from darkness and hurl himself passionately at the object of his affections."

Here, no viewer can hide behind a scrim of profane denial, no critic can separate Starr's aesthetics from his theme. It's religion all right -- more religion than mere spirituality -- and in this case, the art world would do well to give him this space. Instead of squirming with moral discomfort, just let yourself enjoy the work of one truly gifted. The best artists are driven by real impulses, by the need to say something. That Starr's voice springs from his devotion to a certain messiah and the perspective he gained from this conversion not only seems perfectly natural here, but gives his work its power.

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